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Laure
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CHAPTER 1

The first time I saw Adrien Brette, I stopped breathing. Adrien is stunning. I know that’s not a word guys use. But in his case, it’s the only one that works. I had to consciously think about pulling air into my lungs for a good thirty seconds after he walked into the dining room of the Grand Hotel. Of course, I’d been having trouble breathing anyway. The Dining Room of the august old resort in Point Clear wasn’t the sort of place a farm boy from Iowa felt comfortable. It was too Great Gatsby, too subtly feminine, too Old South for me.

I didn’t fit in. Adrien did.

He strolled through the garden of white-clothed tables and gabbing old biddies like he owned every one of them and they meant less than nothing to him. The lines of his creamy summer suit hung perfectly on his lean frame and he moved with the sort of elegance the rest of us hate because it makes us feel gawky. God knows, I did.

I sat there, the humidity of a south Alabama spring defeating both the air conditioning and my efforts to look like I wore a suit every day and dined in hundred-and-fifty-year-old hotels all the time. I felt sweaty, awkward, rumpled, and my tie strangled me. It was probably the wrong color, too. The whole concept of “dress for success” defeats me. So do fancy, upper-class restaurants with names like The Dining Room, where the waiters can tell at a glance you don’t belong.

I looked down, fiddling with my coffee cup so I wouldn’t be caught staring at a handsome guy. I’m not ashamed I’m gay, but I don’t go around advertising it, either. Friends know. My family knows. Everyone else? Well, I don’t like being stared at and I really don’t like being the center of attention, so I keep it low key. Very low key. Practically non-key, if my love life is any indication. I for sure didn’t feel like being sneered at by Mr. Old Hollywood Elegance.

“Joshua Huggins?”

My head popped up and I stared right into more elegance than Hollywood had turned out since 1945. And the deepest green eyes I’d ever seen. I managed to stammer out a yes.

“Adrien Brette. Thank you for agreeing to come out here.”

I scrambled to my feet, managing to drop my napkin on the way, and held out my hand. Adrien had the perfect grip—not so firm as to make it seem like he was trying to prove something, but firm enough to show he was serious. “Thank you for offering me a chance to interview for the job, Mr. Brette.” I got that out with only a stammer or two.

He gestured for me to sit again. I reached for my fallen napkin, but a waiter beat me to it, handing me a fresh one. I could have died. I slid into my chair, taking the napkin before the guy could spread it in my lap and complete my mortification.

Adrien waved the waiter and his napkin back. “We’ll get our food first. Bring me a club soda. And a Pendleton’s, neat. Do you want something else to drink, Mr. Huggins?”

“No, thanks. Coffee’s fine.” Not like I needed any more caffeine, jittery as I was. But I wasn’t about to risk alcohol at brunch with a prospective employer. Besides, it was way too early in the day for me.

I followed Adrien through the bewildering array of foods on the buffet, ordering my eggs from the imposing chef handling a multitude of skillets with ease. Adrien kept the conversation on the food until we sat down and actually began eating.

After a few bites and a sip of his whiskey, he gestured with his fork, a bit of asparagus speared on it tines-down, European style. “I like your resume. It wasn’t cluttered with superlatives.”

A simple compliment shouldn’t have made me blush, but it did. “I prefer straightforward and honest.”

“So do I. We seem to be a rare and dying breed.” A sort of twinkle sparked in his eyes and his lips twitched beneath his trim mustache. I’ve always been a fool for a man with a mustache. Probably because I can’t grow a decent one. Adrien’s was perfect: dark and luxurious without being too thick. Perfect. Like everything else about him.

Dark brown hair swept to one side, a rare sprinkle of silver gleaming in the brightness of the March sun. The faintest hint of lines showed around his deep-set eyes. I still couldn’t believe how dark a green they were. Not a hint of hazel. Not that Adrien Brette would ever have something as common as hazel eyes. Nothing about Adrien was common. Not the aquiline sweep of his faintly hawkish nose, or the sculpted planes of his narrow face. The strong chin, the marked line of his jaw, the firmly indented hollows under his high cheekbones. He would have been too pretty in his youth to be masculine, but his prettiness had matured into beauty. Startling, very masculine beauty.

I ran my tongue over my dry lips and glanced down at what seemed the entire contents of someone’s silverware drawer spread out on three sides of my plate.

Oh, God. Why hadn’t I listened when Nana tried to teach me all this stuff? Okay, that was a bread plate and a butter knife, obviously, but why did anyone need three forks for brunch? And I had to present myself for a job interview at the same time? I should have told him I was on a diet or something. Only guys never admit to it, even if they are on one. I was so dead.

“The simplest way is to start with the outside utensils and work your way in with each course.”

Oh crap.

I’ve always been transparent. Never could lie. Never could hide anything from anyone. I braced myself for the derision and looked up into a smile that stopped my breathing all over again. Only the slightest upturn at the corners of his mouth, but it went all the way to his eyes. They sparkled. I got the funniest feeling in my chest.

“Okay. I can do that.”

Stupid thing to say, but it was all my brain came up with. I forced myself to pull deep on the humid, half-cooled air.

“You don’t have to look so frightened over it.” Adrien paused over another sip of his whiskey. “Your resume doesn’t indicate you’ve had much experience in what some would term the jet-set, but those aren’t the main abilities I’m looking for. A simple lesson in formal dining is hardly going to land you in the reject pile.” He smiled, a faint little curve at the very corners of his lips again. “In fact, it sets you ahead of several others I’ve already spoken with.”

“Thanks.” What was I supposed to say? “It’s a good thing. I’m not used to this.” I indicated the room around us. “It’s great, but I don’t exactly fit in.” Might as well be honest; he could see it all anyway.

“A thing for which you should be grateful.” He started to say something else, but was interrupted by a woman walking right up to the table without any sort of excuse-me or anything.

Her hat was larger than my car, I swear. A wide-brimmed deal, which could have doubled as an umbrella, piled up with silk roses and—God, a quail?—ribbons pouring down off the back and a piece of white netting over her face. All neatly matched up with the light brown-gold of her suit. “Adrien?”

Either her tone or the use of his first name made one of his eyebrows go up. The twinkle vanished and his whole being turned arctic cold. If he’d looked at me like that, I’d have slunk off like a dog beaten with a cane.

It didn’t faze her, though. “It is you! Why, it’s been forever since I’ve seen you. Josie McMillan’s little get-together last summer. It’s wonderful to see you again.” Lord, her voice carried, and I noticed other people turning to look. I felt heat rising up my neck and she wasn’t even talking to me.

The cold front across from me turned a bit chillier. “I’m afraid I don’t recall.” The drawl got deeper, yet the diction was somehow a little more precise. The eyebrow arched a bit higher. “Mrs…”

“Welch. Vivian Welch.” The hat swung a bit as she pulled an old-fashioned cigarette holder from her purse, already loaded with one of the white sticks, and toyed with it. “We spent at least twenty minutes chatting on the veranda.”

“Really? How odd of me.” Adrien eyed the cigarette with distaste curling one side of his expressive mouth. “This is a non-smoking restaurant.”

“Oh, I know.” She waved the unlit thing around as she huffed. “Everything’s gotten so dreary these days. You can’t do anything anywhere.” Then she smiled, bright and fake. “You know, I was talking the other day with Rachel Wentley, and she reminded me of the lovely summer parties you used to hold at Laure with your wife. You should do those again. I’m sure the place could use a little life. It must get dreadfully boring up there all alone.”

“Oh, I’m never bored…with myself.”

I sputtered and reached for my water glass to cover the laugh.

“You know, I really can’t believe you don’t remember me.” If his barb lanced the polished veneer Mrs. Welch had set in place, it didn’t show. She went on light and airy as before. “I play bridge with your cousin once a week at Chatterby’s.”

“Hardly surprising. I have innumerable cousins of varying degrees of respectability. My family has been here three hundred years. After so long, I’m related to ninety percent of the county. One of my cousins probably fixes your car, cleans your house, and sells your children their weekly illegal drug allotment.”

That got her. Rouged cheeks went white, then a fairly cool shade of purple, which didn’t go at all with the bright red lipstick being pressed right onto her teeth. She dropped the cigarette holder back in her purse and almost planted one manicured hand on her hip. Then she must have decided it wasn’t considered Southern belle proper and clenched her fist at her side instead. The sugar syrup in her voice went up about three tones. “Well, I seem to have disturbed your meal, so I’ll be off to my hair appointment.” She gave me the sort of glare usually reserved for dogs who shit on the carpet, and I tried to look appropriately subdued without busting up laughing. “Good day, Adrien.”

I couldn’t look at him. I knew if I did, I’d lose it completely. Then he snorted. And I looked up. He was watching her flounce away with a look of complete satisfaction on his face. Then he glanced at me and the twinkle returned. “And I didn’t even get a chance to tell her no one wears hats that God-awful anymore. If they ever did.”

I doubted the linen napkin muffled much of my laughter, but I did try. It felt like I laughed for about ten minutes, surely too long to endear me as an employee, but it was no use. How marvelous Adrien was!

“Take a drink of your water and try to breathe.” A good bit of laughter lurked in his tone. “Yes, awful of me, but I’m never nice. I have a strong reputation for being sharp-tongued. And it’s well known I can’t abide a social climber. She knew what she was risking.” His gaze was as sharp as his tongue. I felt it go right through me. God forbid he ever consider me a social climber. “Can you breathe yet?”

“Yes.” I managed to get myself under control with the force of his gaze. “Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.” Well, if I’d blown the job—likely—at least I’d had one of the most enjoyable meals of my life.

“Why are you apologizing? It was hilarious. I enjoyed every moment. I’m pleased you did as well.” He picked up his fork. “Eat your food.”

“Yes, sir.” Suddenly the mass of silver and china didn’t seem quite as intimidating.

*          *          *

As a job interview, my meeting with Adrien ranked as the oddest I’d ever had or ever heard of. He didn’t ask about my experience or my abilities. He said he’d checked my references and knew all he needed to know about that. Instead, we talked. About the food. About the hotel. About the fact ladies didn’t wear hats anymore—a good thing if they were going to be like the horror we’d faced earlier. Well, actually, I talked mostly. He asked questions. He made comments. And he made me laugh at least twice more. He didn’t laugh, unless you counted this odd sort of single snort as a laugh. But he smiled and his eyes sparkled.

Eventually, he checked his watch, an honest-to-God pocket watch he kept in a little slit in his vest. “I have another appointment. May I walk you out to your car?”

“Sure.” I’m not sure when I’d stopped calling him “sir,” but it felt strange now. I’d never dare call him by name, but “sir” seemed far too formal after our conversation. Still, I should add some courtesy to end the interview properly. “Thank you very much for your consideration of my resume, Mr. Brette.”

He finished signing the check and rose. “Nonsense. I placed an ad for an administrative assistant. Naturally, I considered everyone with the proper qualifications.” He directed me toward the door, first leading, then dropping back to walk beside me once we were out of the restaurant and into the hotel. “As I said, I liked yours.”

Wait. He couldn’t mean…no. He couldn’t possibly mean I was the only applicant who’d made it to the interview. Of course not. No, he’d said earlier he’d spoken with others. No doubt he was on his way to another interview right now.

The walk out to my car took way too long and not long enough. I felt clumsier than I ever had in my life and struggled to not trip over my own feet. Yet I knew, once we reached my car, I’d never see Adrien Brette again. The idea saddened me, almost frightened me. I couldn’t really explain the sensation, not even to myself. He didn’t say a word as we walked, but I was acutely aware of him. The tight feeling in my chest wouldn’t ease up.

I fumbled with my key fob, eventually finding the right button to unlock my car. Adrien pulled the door open for me. “Someone will be in touch with you. About the position.”

“Okay.” For a moment I wished I were suave, witty, anything to let me turn his simple courtesy—which was sort of weird these days—into something warmer. I didn’t want to leave his presence. In a couple of days, some impersonal phone call from the person he’d hired instead of me would seal any chance of seeing him again, and I knew when it happened I’d probably cry. Thank God at least Adrien wouldn’t see it.

“Good. Take care, Joshua.” He closed the door and turned away, strolling back toward the hotel, every move as graceful as a dance.

Maybe I’d just wait ’til he was out of sight and start crying now.

*          *          *

Talk about contrasts in lifestyles. I threw my keys onto the bar between my little galley kitchen and the rest of the efficiency apartment. Rent by the month. No lease. No worries. No luxuries. Oh well, I’d lived in worse and it fit the unemployment check from my crappy pay-for-my-tuition job.

I loosened my tie—yeah, definitely the wrong color for a power lunch—and grabbed a beer from the fridge. It was probably still too early, but I didn’t exactly care. I hadn’t cried over Adrien. Yet. It was a close-run thing.

“Okay, I’m losing my mind. Crushing on a guy I just met. Seriously? Josh, old son, you are nuts, or desperate, or both.”

The phone caught me before I had a chance to drop into the armchair in front of the TV and settle into a serious funk. The caller ID on the screen had me nearly inhaling my beer. Laure.

Damn. That was the name of Adrien’s estate. Couldn’t I even have enough time to at least daydream I’d gotten the job before I lost it? I moistened my lips and answered it. “This is Joshua Huggins.”

“Adrien Brette.”

Like I wouldn’t recognize those deep tones and his high-bred Southern accent. “Yes, Mr. Brette.”

“Adrien, please. I see no need for formality.”

Great. No job, but he wouldn’t snap my head off if I happened to run into him like Mrs. Welch and use his first name without permission. “A-Adrien.” God, I sounded like a complete moron.

“Your resume says you’re available for work right away. Is that still the case? If so, I’d like you to come out to Laure first thing tomorrow. Well, I realize you’ll have to pack and such. But before lunch, if possible.”

“I g-got the job?” Okay, even if I’d had it, the squeak in my voice killed it. I crushed the still half-full can of beer in my hand—over the sink, thank God—and waited for him to say he was sorry, he’d made a mistake.

He laughed instead. A rich full chuckle. It only lasted a few seconds, but it made my bones ache in a good way. “You do, indeed, have the job. Can you start tomorrow?”

“Y-yes, sir.” God, Huggins, get hold of yourself. “I mean, yes, Mr. Brette, I can be there tomorrow.” I’d have to figure out some way to explain suits nicer than the one I had for interviews would have to wait several paychecks. Maybe he’d be okay with decent pants and button-downs or polos until then. I wiped the beer remnants on the towel lying on the counter and reached for a pen. “I’ll need the address.”

“Take 98 south past the Grand Hotel. You’ll see the turnoff for Laure a few miles down on the right, toward the bay.” He paused a moment, and I wrote it down; though it was unlikely I’d forget something so simple and so important. “I thought we’d agreed you’d call me Adrien.”

“Yes, sir—I mean, Adrien.” It made my chest tight to say his name. “I’m sorry, I forgot.”

“You’ll get used to it. ’Til tomorrow, then. Have a pleasant evening, Joshua. I’ll look forward to seeing you.”

The silence on the phone broke what little decorum I had left. God! I was going to work for a zillionaire Southern aristocrat a good twenty years older than me and live at his fancy estate with great green lawns and maids in frilly aprons and some old guy named Jeeves or something, who looked like a statue, standing at the front stairway ready to either direct you to the library or skewer you with an epee, whatever the hell an epee is. Me, Josh Huggins, Iowa farm boy, fresh out of college with an English degree and a certification in Administrative Assistance. Why did I ever apply for the job in the first place? I’d spent most of my life in the second-floor corner bedroom of a clapboard farmhouse, looking out over the limbs of the sole surviving elm for miles to the cornfields beyond. I’d be dead lost in some big old Southern mansion, probably break a gargoyle on the drive in or fall flat on my face as I slipped on the polished oak floor in a huge entry with a twenty-foot-high ceiling draped in magnolias or something.

And do it all right in front of him. Adrien. Oh God. Just shoot me now; it would be kinder. I gave myself a week at the most before I completely screwed up something.

Still…I’d have a week with him.

I couldn’t control the smile settling over my lips. I’d have a week in his house, helping him. Maybe standing close enough to smell his cologne.

Okay—time to get a grip on the hormones. Yes, Adrien was sexy beyond belief. Hot in ways I’d never even imagined. But he was also my new boss. And straight. So go easy on the sniffing. Save the fantasy for when I was all alone in bed.

Packing wouldn’t take long. I’d only been here two weeks. Better wash the rest of the beer off my hands, though. Having my entire wardrobe smelling like Bud Light wouldn’t likely impress the boss at all. And I found I dearly wanted to impress him for one glorious week before the whole deal collapsed. I owed him that much for taking a chance on me in the first place.

 

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Copyright 2013 T.D.McKinney. All Rights Reserved.